Fostering Inclusivity in L.A.: How I Got Here

  
Keara and family

Keara with her family

I am the outlier in my family. The youngest of five, the only musician, the one who loved Sunday school and the only one to marry a Jewish partner. Growing up my mother said she wanted me to marry a “nice Jewish man” so that I could have a “nice Jewish last name”—apparently my maiden name, Cummings, didn’t sound Jewish enough to my mother, Froma. I know she was joking (mostly) and that having the last name “Stein” is secondary to the man I married and the relationship we’ve built. What neither of us knew was that because Jason was not raised as a liberal Jew like I was, a large part of our relationship deals with navigating our different Jewish backgrounds as we build a Jewish home with our children.

My mother was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and my father had converted to Judaism when he married his late (first) wife years before I was born. Though we were steeped in Judaism, by the time I was born, my family’s Jewish observance had changed significantly. I have vivid memories of singing “apples and honey for a sweet new year” at Rosh Hashanah dinner in our living room and Passover seders at my cousins’ house, but very few memories of attending services or programs at synagogue. It was a moment in synagogue, however, that left a deep impact on my life and ultimately led me to pursue the rabbinate.

I was 6 or 7 years old and my mother took me on a trip for work. When we arrived back in town we happened to be near the synagogue and decided to go in for Friday night Shabbat services. Dressed in jeans, I was embarrassed that we would stand out and people would shame us. We went in anyway, and about halfway through the service I fell asleep on her lap. When I awoke at the end of the service, the rabbi’s tallit was draped around me like a blanket and I quickly realized that Rabbi Herring had taken it off his own back and offered it to me. I understand this gesture even more deeply now that I am a rabbi and know the significance of my own tallit, and the meaning it brings me when I use it to bless couples at their weddings, and babies and families at birth ceremonies.

We entered that room embarrassed and anxious that we would be turned away, but instead we were welcomed with open arms and kindness. This is how I view the Jewish community today: inviting, engaging, kind and open.

I attended Willamette University, a small liberal arts college in Oregon with roots in the Methodist Church. As one of only of seven Jewish students in the entire undergraduate student body, I was often the first Jewish person most people there had met. I was asked several times if I had horns. I was proselytized. I thought about transferring to a university with more Jewish students. After a lot of consideration I chose to stay at Willamette and to seek out a larger Jewish community for support. I learned that the people around me who were not Jewish strengthened my own Jewish life. By having to reflect on my own understanding of Judaism, I learned why certain things about being Jewish matter to me.

In college, I was the Jewish representative whether I liked it or not, and this experience is what led me to become a Jewish professional. I love thinking deeply about what Judaism means for people and how it is represented in our lives and in the world. I love being a resource, a reference and a trusted advisor to my friends, family and community.

Two of my sisters are married to men who are not Jewish and each of them has two children. I understand that religion is not a cut and dry issue for their families and I love being able to help them navigate religious life for their children. It brings me joy to answer questions like, “Does an English muffin count as bread on Passover?” and “Were Moses and Jesus friends?”

I came to L.A. in 2010 to attend rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College and I’ve worked all over town—at UCLA Hospital in Westwood, at St. John’s hospital in Santa Monica, at OUR House Center for Grief Support at the 405 and Sawtelle, and at various synagogues in the Valley. There were days that I spent three hours driving through town commuting to work and back home in Pasadena. I love that each neighborhood in L.A. has its own personality and its own needs. I know that there are areas with concentrated Orthodox Jewish population around L.A., but there are not areas with concentrated liberal, secular, and interfaith Jewish families. This makes finding community that much more difficult, and my work important and challenging. I hope that we can gather people together in community for fun, inclusive events. I hope you will join me in celebrating Jewish holidays at CiclaVia, learning about the issues facing Jewish families at a local hangout, playing with our babies at the park, and playing with our friends at the Hollywood Bowl.

I look forward to working with IFF to continue this important work of engaging people in community and helping people experience Judaism without the pain of closed doors, but rather with the kindness of a welcoming Jewish community.